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Spokane’s great fire of 1889 inspired ‘Fire Season,’ Leyna Krow’s new ‘hodgepodge’ of a novel

Leyna Krow’s new book, “Fire Season,” is her debut novel centered around the Spokane fire of 1889.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Leyna Krow’s new book, “Fire Season,” is her debut novel centered around the Spokane fire of 1889. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

On Aug. 4, 1889, much of what existed in downtown Spokane Falls burned to the ground.

History tells us where the fire started – at Wolfe’s, a lunchroom/hotel/brothel across from the Northern Pacific Depot on Railroad Avenue – and at what time: roughly 6 p.m. We know the devastation covered 30 blocks of the central business district, and that one life was lost.

What we don’t know is how the fire started. There are guesses – a grease fire at Wolfe’s, an errant cigarette, a knocked-over lantern in one of the hotel rooms upstairs. That mystery proved irresistible to Spokane writer Leyna Krow, who used the fire as the central event of her debut novel, “Fire Season.”

She started work on the book in 2015, after spending a summer leading food-related tours of downtown that always included stories about the Great Fire of 1889.

“It’s such an interesting story,” Krow said. “We know where the fire started, we know what burned, we know what came afterward, we know when it started, but there’s no consensus on how it started. And as a fiction writer, I thought that was just such an interesting open door to walk through.”

“Fire Season” tells the intertwined stories of three characters: the loathed and loathsome Barton Heydale, the manager of Spokane Falls’ only bank who sees an opportunity to enrich himself from the moment the fire sparks; charming conman Quake Auchenbacher, who poses as a federal fire investigator in order to relieve Spokane Falls officials of the city’s money; and Roslyn Beck, a prostitute at Wolfe’s who uses alcohol to dull her extraordinary ability to know the future.

The book is not straight historical fiction. Like Sharma Shields’ “The Cassandra,” which places its clairvoyant central character in the middle of the Manhattan Project at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, “Fire Season” blends a little magical realism in its depiction of a late 1800s Western boom town.

The historical stuff Krow aimed to get right, and she spent a lot of time in the Northwest Room at the Central Library looking over old maps, books and newspaper articles. For the rest, she let her imagination run wild.

“It’s a hodgepodge,” she said. “I did do quite a bit of research when I first started it. I wanted it, if not to be accurate then to feel accurate, to give a sense of what life in Spokane, and particularly in downtown, was like at that time.”

Writing book from three different perspectives was a challenge, but the characters themselves kept it interesting. Quake, Krow said, was fun to write.

“Quake is not a good guy, but he was a fun guy,” she said. “Readers seemed early on to understand that you’re supposed to be if not rooting for this guy, at least enjoying him in his selfishness and criminal activity.”

Barton was more challenging. While Krow likes unlikable characters, Barton initially was a little too unlikable. “The feedback that I got fairly early on from some of my early readers was that being with Barton was a challenge. So I revised his section several times so even though he’s horrible, he’s at least marginally empathetic and interesting. That’s a hard line to walk between someone who really is a bummer of a person and who ends up doing really terrible things, but still make him readable for 100 pages.”

Roslyn is the novel’s heart. A former school teacher who feels cursed with the ability to see the future, she reaches rock bottom in the aftermath of the fire. As she climbs out of her drunken haze, she begins to see a way forward in the world. But to get there, she has to go through Barton first, then Quake. The end of her story is wholly satisfying. Krow knew fairly early how she wanted Roslyn to reinvent herself.

“It took a long time for me to get her there in a way that made sense. Her section more than any other has been revised and revised and revised,” Krow said. “It definitely was a long process to make her arc make sense in a satisfying way, but I always knew how I wanted her to land.”

The book has arrived to accolades. A starred review in Publisher’s Weekly said, “Krow pulls off a convincing last gasp of the Wild West with an appealing array of charlatans and schemers.” Good Housekeeping included “Fire Season” on its list of the 40 best books of the year so far, writing, “This story is darkly funny, deliciously devious and hugely inventive, a magical twist on the allure of the American West and who goes there to seek their fortune.”

And late last month, the Center for Fiction placed “Fire Season” on its longlist for the First Novel Prize. From 140 submissions, judges narrowed the list to 24. The winner of the $15,000 prize will be announced in December.

That is the latest in a run of good news for Krow. In June, the Hollywood Reporter noted that Warner Bros. had won a bidding war for the film rights to Krow’s short story, “The Sundance Kid Might Have Some Regrets,” which has Zoë Kravitz attached to star and produce.

“It’s been exciting having a debut novel with a big publisher, and friends from all over the country texting me telling me that they bought it at their local bookstore,” Krow said. “It’s felt nice.”

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